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Hold off on biting into new Apple
Wait for more information about the shift to Intel chips before buying a new Macintosh.
By Peter H Lewis, FORTUNE senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Apple said last summer that it is switching to Intel microprocessors from the IBM and Motorola PowerPC chips that have powered the Mac for the past decade.

The switch is a major shift in the Macintosh platform, promising more speed and processing power for desktop Macs and better battery life for Macintosh portables. (No, this doesn't mean Apple is switching to Windows, although a question remains on whether the Intel-based Macs will support multiple operating systems, allowing users to use Windows as well as the Mac OS. Personally, I think the Mac OS is superior to Windows, and can't fathom why anyone would want to ruin a perfectly good Macintosh by installing Windows on it.)

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Apple initially said the changeover would start in the summer of 2006 with selected models, probably laptops at first and spreading to all desktops by the end of 2007. But lately the rumor mill says the switch will start much sooner, perhaps with a first batch of PowerBook portables in the spring.

The Osborne Effect

Apple is in a precarious spot, because it doesn't want people to stop buying current Macs before the new Macs are available. (The dilemma is called the Osborne Effect, after Adam Osborne, who may have doomed his early 1980s portable computer company by promising customers that significantly improved Osborne computers were on the way. According to computer industry lore, sales of existing Osbornes dried up immediately, and the company went broke before the new, improved models were ready.)

Apple is notorious for obsessively keeping new products secret until they are formally announced and on the way to stores. The announcement of the switch to Intel chips was made a year in advance, yet Apple's sales of current, pre-Intel Macs continue to grow, perhaps stoked by the phenomenal success of the Apple iPod portable music and video player. (Could it be that Mac computers have become the ultimate iPod accessories?)

We'll know more about the timing of the Intel transition on January 10 when Steve Jobs delivers the keynote address at the Macworld expo in San Francisco.

The Osborne Effect will hit Apple eventually as people wait for the new, Intel-based Macs, which analysts say will be better, faster and cheaper than current Macs. It could also affect software companies, which are racing to rewrite their programs to work more efficiently with the Intel processors.

Apple can minimize the effect by accelerating the release date for new Intel-based PowerBooks and iBook portables.

Any Mac (or PC, for that matter) that you buy today will work just fine for several years to come. But a fundamental change in the microprocessor architecture, especially one that Apple says will improve its computers significantly and is in the best long-term interest of its customers, automatically hastens the aging process of current machines, without question.

The bottom line

My advice, which Apple will not receive happily, is to put off any new Macintosh purchases at least until January 10, when the roadmap will be clearer. Top of page

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